Friday, February 25, 2011

What's in a name?

As you may know, Sunday brings us the Academy Awards, and I know at least one [tk]er has seen all ten Best Picture nominees. Embarrassingly, I've only seen three--and yet there are ballots to fill out and contests to win!

In the absence of actual knowledge, I'm resorting to what I do best: playing with words. Using only the ancient art of the anagram (with the help of an online generator), then, let's try to predict what film will win Best Picture.

Black Swan: Bawl Snack

Dim tidings for Natalie Portman: the anagram generator predicts two things she'll be doing on Oscar Night (however unlikely the latter). Black Swan will not win.

The Fighter: Get He Firth

I didn't think The Fighter was anyone's first choice for this category, but the anagram generator predicts otherwise! The dark horse of the Oscar race is gunning, it appears, to take out critical darling The King's Speech.

Inception: Nice in Top
Despite losing much of its initial Oscar steam, looks like Inception is among the likeliest contenders for the throne. The generator's diction is peculiar here, however: while we'd have to seriously consider Inception's taking Best Picture if it was "on top," being "in top" makes me think that it will lose, closely. Still, with this movie, who's to say what "on top" even means?

[The] Kids Are All Right: Harried Gals Kilt

It's unlikely, if possible, that the anagram generator expects Annette Bening and Julianne Moore to show up to the Oscars in kilts. No, I suspect this means the "harried gals" and their mostly lackluster (with the exception of Mark Ruffalo) movie will be kilt by the competition.

The King's Speech: Henpecks Eights

The anagram generator predicts--to no one's surprise--that The King's Speech will push aside most contenders--with the exception of one.

127 Hours: no anagram

The length of this title spelled out broke the anagram generator, exceeding the site's capacity. Let's assume that James Franco's manic energy--and any excess from director Danny Boyle--will similarly confound the Academy.

[The] Social Network: A Stricken Wool

Well, this bodes poorly for the flannel-robed Jesse Eisenberg. Sorry, Jesse, looks like The Social Network is out, although perhaps you'll win Best Actor for playing "a cloister wonk."

Toy Story 3: Tether Story Yo

It was always unlikely that Toy Story 3 would win, and the anagram generator throws in another harsh, yet valid, point--as others have pointed out, from what exactly is Toy Story 3's screenplay adapted? That story is untethered, yo.

True Grit: Trite Rug

I disagree with the generator on this, but what can you do? Looks like the Academy will wipe its feet with this one.

Winter's Bone: Newbies Torn

Good try!

The anagram generator is of necessity a bit vague, but I think we can determine a winner here. While it looks to be a close race among Inception, The King's Speech, and The Fighter, Inception is simply not "on top," and The King's Speech only beats eight of its competitors. Let's not forget, either, that The Fighter is a story of hard-won and somewhat unexpected success. Against all odds, The Fighter will win Best Picture.

Don't look at me: it's all in the names.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Help me, Watson, you're my only literary hope

This'll have to be a brief post today--all of us swamped with work, and wishing I was a robot just so I could plow through every bit of work without the slightest diversion from the task at hand. With the IBM Watson computer's round on Jeopardy just having wrapped up a series of stellar games, I keep wondering: could there be a literary equivalent of Watson? As we move ahead into an ever-more digitized world of publishing, surely some of what used to be done slowly and methodically is now being automated. But while certain aspects of typesetting and design can be "flowed in" from computer templates, could we ever really let a computer assess--and create--literature?

As you'll see in my upcoming book review, I've been doing a lot of thinking about what constitutes creative work. Does fictive creation come from out of illogical, unrestricted, free-flowing thought, or does it come from a careful step-by-step progression through a series of events that jumpstart character development? There are a lot of ways to go about writing a novel--some writers plot things from beginning to end before ever writing a word; others start with a single evocative idea or image and later impose structure and form onto their story. But could a computer ever generate ideas the way an author does?

I'm holding off on my full thoughts on this for my review, but for now consider the advent of chatbots, a series of chat generators that use algorithmic intelligence to hold conversations with human users. You can use it to play with language, or to stave off loneliness, but the curiosity of holding a human-computer exchange has its moments of intrigue. My first conversation with a chatbot through the program Jabberwacky went something like this:

JW: Roses are red.
JFS: How sweet. Are you courting me?
JW: Define courting.
JFS: Flirting.
JW: Are you flirting with me?
JFS: You asked for a definition.
JW: No. I asked if you wanted to host the game or if I should.
JFS: I much prefer Scrabble.
Alejandro, alejandro, ale-ale-jandro, ale-ale-jandro.

I could never have predicted that the chatbot would take me from old-fashioned lines of courtship poetry to Lady Gaga, so there was some element of spontaneity and surprise. But then again, what the chatbot gave me was an entertaining non-sequitur at best. If this was a writer bringing a piece of dialogue to me, I'm be writing "Where is this coming from?" all over the margins in red pencil.

If you were reading a novel written by a computer, would it read like pure gibberish, or like rigid structure? It seems writers are constantly balancing their impulses for orderly narrative with a desire for original thought, and the ones who do it well create great, accessible works of high art. But when we leave this process to a computer, it seems that balance is pretty unstable. More on this in our issue next week, but I urge anyone interested in how story comes together to hold a few sessions with a chatbot. Play with it. Flirt with it. Trade non-sequiturs with it. See what you get...

Friday, February 18, 2011

The Highbrow Trickle-Down Theory

There’s this totally deliciously delivered monologue in the 2006 movie The Devil Wears Prada, given by Meryl Streep’s Miranda Priestly. Horrified by her assistant’s attitude (as exuded by Anne Hathaway) that she is somehow above the vanities and self indulgences of fashion, Priestly explains to her that while she may not give a shit about couture, the trends that are set on the runway trickle all the way down to “whatever discount bin” Hathaway buys her clothes from. Try as you can to escape the influences of high art, they’ll find you.

Catching up on my backlog of Grey’s Anatomy episodes last night (I am ashamed and horrified by the fact that this is my second in twenty-eight posts to reference this show, but whatever; even Achilles had his weakness), this little theory came to mind as the plot from the February 2nd episode unwound. In it, an Alzheimer’s patient, in his compromised lucidity, has fallen for a fellow patient in his nursing home, leaving his loving wife—who has stood by his side throughout the course of his illness—heartbroken. Knowing she’s no match for the disease’s sneaky punches, and that arguing with her husband’s invented reality will only upset him, the wife swallows her own feelings and humors his new romance as it is conducted right in front of her.

This was Streep/Devil reminiscent because that plot was strangely familiar to me. It's the same one that lies at the heart of the slightly more—well, at the right of sounding snobby—artistic narrative, the Alice Munro short story, “The Bear Came Over the Mountain,” which was eventually adapted into the equally heart wrenching film Away from Her, starring Julie Christie.

When I first realized this parallel, I was a little pissed, truth be told. “Bear” is one of my all time favorite short stories, and I’m a proud owner of the DVD of that movie, despite the fact that it wasn’t widely released. (After being blown away by an early screening of it I tried to drag friends along to see it in theatres, but we couldn’t find one playing it, and in New York, no less!) Though I’m clearly a Grey’s fan, I didn’t feel like humoring their obvious attempt at ripping of one of my favorite pieces of art—dumbing it down and dramatizing it up. I had little doubt that one of the show’s producers was one of the few people who had seen that movie.

But after some thought, it occurred to me: the plot of that story moved me and stuck with me. That was, in fact, one of the reasons that I was so disappointed that more people didn’t have the opportunity to see it. And here it was, presented in a forum that does reach millions of viewers. It wasn’t quite as subtle and was a hell of a lot cornier, but the heart and the soul of the message was still there.

Now wait, before you go saying it, I’m not advocating plagiarism. The details, contexts and formats had changed (Munro’s version had a lot of buried demons wrestling below the plot, as any good short story does), and certainly no lines had been lifted. (I know because I love that story enough to know it by heart!) What I am saying is that as someone who is often quite frustrated that literary fiction doesn’t find as many consumers as commercial or genre fiction, or shows like Grey’s Anatomy, it’s nice to know that it's influencing pop art all the same.

In the end, Miranda Priestly didn’t turn out to be as wildly villainous as she first seemed—she maybe even had some points—and maybe literary fiction reaches the masses after all?

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Worlds Without Borders

By now the news of the bookstore chain Borders filing for bankruptcy protection--and announcing the closing of over 200 stores across the country--has sent shock waves through the publishing industry and the literary world. It makes me sad, to be sure, and it makes me worried about how publishers are going to absorb those multimillion-dollar debts...but where it really starts to worry me is on the question of landscape. As bookstores shutter, how will neighborhoods be transformed?

If you live in an urban area, it's likely that you've got a Borders or Barnes & Noble within 15 minutes walking distance, and so the displacement of your local bookstore is more a change in scenery than a change in neighborhood character. This store usually carries with it a franchised coffee chain, and so the bookstore became a waystation, a good spot for a full afternoon of entertainment. If I ever had to meet someone at Lincoln Center on the Upper West Side, I'd always end up popping into the Barnes & Noble on the corner, and almost always walking out with one or two purchases I hadn't intended before. Now that the store is shuttered and plans are in place for a Century 21 in that location, I imagine I won't be making as many impulse buys...

But this is a city, and where one bookstore closes, another is open down the street. If you live outside of an urban area, this becomes much more problematic. As suburbs grew and jobs moved outside of small towns, the shopping center and strip mall became the way we do our shopping. This moved the bookstore out of the town square and into the megastore, which is how B&N and Borders came to be so profitable. Bookstores didn't require the same kind of curated experience that comes with a small storefront; instead, they could carry everything--music, DVDs, magazines--and engage new methods of promoting new titles, through endtable displays, the front-of-store placement, holiday tables, and mega-discounting. And being in a strip mall meant that it was much easier for people to lump their book buying in with their everyday errands. After a grueling round of shopping at Target, you could drop your 5-year-old in the children's books section and take 15 minutes for yourself to browse the newest literary fiction. The spontaneity--and relative proximity--of the bookstore was still available.

But with the closing of these major chains, we're moving into a third, more distance model of book-buying, one that relies entirely on the self-driven purchasing of books on the web. (Yes, e-readers make it possible to buy books spontaneously, but anyone that buys a Kindle is already invested in reading books on a regular basis. Remember, you can only call it democracy if you really care about voting.) Now suburban readers may find themselves in the same predicament as rural readers: with no easy bookstore to access, everything will have to be discovered and purchased online. (And this all presupposes that you have a Internet-accessing computer at home and a credit card on which you can buy books, something that can't be taken for granted.) Bookstores are structured to guide consumers, but even with well-designed websites, we now have to guide--and motivate--ourselves to read.

People have already spent much time bemoaning the loss of bookstores because of what they mean as places to shop, but I bemoan them for what they meant as landmarks, as neighborhood hangouts. If you're lucky enough to have grown up with a terrific independent bookstore, it probably meant as much to you as your local library. As a child, books were the one thing my parents were always willing to buy for me: a book purchase could happen on any day of the week, not just on a birthday or special occasion. Even now the books I read as a child are the most difficult to throw away. But more than the books themselves were the bookstores--I grew up among smart, intellectually curious people, and one of the ways I knew this was by how many bookstores were in my neighborhood. Whether it's Borders, B&N, or more indies that disappear next, it matters that these hallmarks of local culture, watering holes that enable people to converse and exchange ideas, were nearby and accessible and treated as important. If the stores keep shuttering, we'll have to start looking elsewhere to figure out exactly where we live and what culture we can create.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Video Games for Book Nerds

Yesterday’s Galley Cat post about a hilarious Great Gatsby-inspired 1985-style platformer had me thinking about which other classics I’d most want to see get the Nintendo treatment. Leave your ideas in the comments!

Dead Souls: Instead of gold coins, your character collects the papers of dead serfs.

Portnoy’s Complaint: Instead of gold coins, your character collects pieces of liver.

Moby-Dick: Obvious final boss. Unfortunately, your boat goes under no matter what. (Would make a better arcade game than console game.)

Clarissa: Replay the same failed seduction scene for 1,500+ levels.

100 Years of Solitude: Each player can be a different Buendía. See if you can tell them apart.

Henry James (this works for any of the novels): Play as an American abroad. Nothing happens, and everyone grows increasingly uncomfortable.

Anna Karenina: In the bonus level, you get to harvest wheat.

Infinite Jest: Eschaton!

Disgrace: I would like to see somebody attempt the most depressing video game ever made, in which you helplessly fend off home invasions and euthanize stray dogs.

Monday, February 14, 2011

Literary Valentines!

I know, I know, people who think of Valentine’s Day as a fake, Hallmark-created holiday are in good company. I, however, stand solidly in the camp of those who jump at any excuse to celebrate, and while any day should be a good day to tell someone you love that you love them, it’s nice to have an excuse to spoil your nearest and dearest. For those of you still not convinced, why not add some depth to this cheese-fest by giving your lovies a book? Below are a few suggestions. Most of them don’t even have cartoon candy hearts on the jacket, I swear!

Love is a Mixed Tape by Rob Sheffield

While this one is as much about death, music, and the process of grieving a spouse as it is a love story, Sheffield does the nearly impossible in the anecdotes that fill the book—he brings his deceased wife back to life. She lives and breathes on nearly every page as Sheffield pays tribute to her short life, and I can’t think of anything more romantic than that. Their partners-in-crime approach to the world and their quirky, fun loving dispositions won’t soon be forgotten, nor will Sheffield’s prose. It’s a tearjerker worth the cost of the tissues.

Selected Poems by Frank O’Hara

This wordsmith makes even the simple delight of “Having a Coke With You” feel like the loveliest activity on the planet.

The Gift of The Magi by O Henry

This may be a Christmas tale, but I think Valentine’s Day needs to get in on the action. Has there ever been a more heartwarming look at the self-sacrifices we make in love?

Dumped edited by B. Delores Max

For all those groups of single girlfriends who get together to suffer through the couplefest aspect of the holiday in solidarity. (I know you’re out there because I used to do this every year with one of my nearest and dearest friends, Meghan Luby. Eating fried rice and a flame lit punch bowl of vodka while taking in drag queen karaoke with her in ’07 is still one of my all time favorite Valentine’s Days.) Dumped is a delightful anthology interested in the dark side of love—the moment when it ends. With stories from contemporary greats like Lorrie Moore and classic narrative weavers like Dorothy Parker, this collection will prove that sometimes having a beau isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.

The Giving Tree by Shel Silverstein

For the truly selfless people in your life! I love this one because it’s appropriate not only for romantic love, but parents, siblings, and friends as well.

The Lover's Dictionary by David Levithan

Admittedly, I haven’t read this one from start to finish yet, but when I went to read the opening at Barnes and Noble to decide if it was worth buying in hardcover I spent an hour engrossed in its first half. Through alphabetical (as opposed to chronological) dictionary entries defining what various concepts mean to the couple in question (breathtaking, ineffable, etc.), the author spins a picture of a couple as unique and noteworthy as this unusual format. On his Amazon page, the author says that the idea for the book came from a 23 year tradition of writing a Valentine’s Day story for friends every year, so this one feels particularly appropriate!

Moonface by Angela Balcita

I know I just did a book bite on this one, but it’s too appropriate for a holiday based on love to not mention it here. While they’re both singular memoirs, this one is kind of like Love is a Mixed tape with a happy ending. Both are about couples whose whole is worth more than the sum of their parts.

A Pigeon and a Boy by Meir Shalev

As epic and heavy as Romeo and Juliet but set in our time, this unforgettable literary tale is another one sure to elicit water works. In prose that practically sings, it proves in strictly un-cliché fashion that time and even war are no match for true love.

Valentines by Rob McKuen

I know, it’s a little obvious, but beyond its title, this book of poetry finds new and unforgettable ways to say “I love you.” Plus, my mom gave me her copy from when she was in college for my 21st birthday and it was one of the most memorable gifts I’ve received, so it seems in keeping with the spirit of giving books as gifts!

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

A Little Love for the D

I found myself feeling a rush of civic pride for the city of Detroit while watching the Super Bowl last weekend. Between bites of chips and cookies, I suddenly saw flashes of Detroit on the big screen TV—the Spirit of Detroit statue, the mighty 24-foot bronze fist of heavyweight champion, Joe Louis, and the magnificent Fox Theatre. I thought I was back home in Michigan watching the local news.

The ad was announcing the new Chrysler 200 but in reality it was a commercial for Detroit—“What does a town that’s been to hell and back know about luxury?” touted the ad. It felt good. Finally, a car commercial that promoted the auto industry's birthplace. Chrysler is not just an American car company—it’s a Detroit car company.

This is the city that’s been in a depression for the last thirty years. It’s the city that was on the cover of Time Magazine last year as part of a year-long series to chronicle “the most challenged large city in America.” It’s the city usually described as crumbling, decaying, shrinking… Detroit is a shell of what it once was, and yet, it’s still there. It’s still the Motor City.

My dad works downtown. My sister chose a historic mansion in the city for her wedding reception. I spent a summer interning at the Detroit Free Press. Many of my relatives are employed by GM. No, I’ve never lived below 8 mile but my ears perk up whenever the city is mentioned. Pride for Detroit never really went away among people from the area, even as its mayor was sentenced to prison for perjury and obstruction of justice. The city’s cultural history is too strong to be forgotten. It’s the home of Motown, after all. But now it seems Detroit has a new kind of pride for enduring hell.

In this spirit of pride, I’d like to point out a few Detroit writers. Jeffrey Eugenides’s 2002 novel, Middlesex, was called “the Detroit novel,” partially set during the 1967 riots. Poets Philip Levine and Robert Hayden were both born in Detroit, and attended Wayne State University. The prolific Elmore Leonard, author of Get Shorty and Out of Sight, still lives in the area. Novelist and essayist Marge Piercy was born in the city during the Great Depression and attended Detroit public schools. There are more Detroit writers out there, but not really enough.

I live in New York now but I’ll never be a New Yorker. And I can’t legitimately call myself a Detroiter but I’ll always be an avid fan. For now, I think I’ll try to read some more Detroit talent.